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McCain confronts AIDS protesters

January 6, 2008 | 12:06 pm

Manchester, N.H. -- Republican John McCain's "town hall" meetings routinely are more freewheeling and provocative than the comparable events staged by other presidential candidates. McCain actually enjoys mixing it up with those who disagree with him. Today, though, he was confronted with a determined group of young protestors who simply wanted to shout at him to make their point.

More than 1,000 people -- potentially a good sign for McCain's hopes in Tuesday's primary -- showed up midday to hear and question him at a school gymnasium in Salem, N.H. But, The Times' Maeve Reston reports, moments into his opening remarks the protesters interrupted, waving signs that called for $50 billion in spending to combat AIDS.

After the crowd greeted their chants with boos, the demonstrators piped down -– prompting McCain to invite them to stay around and discuss the issue with him during the question-and-answer portion of his appearance.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a town hall meeting where I didn’t try to listen to everybody, that’s why, frankly, my friends, we're winning this campaign," he said (polls do show him on the rise).

The Q&A was not to be, however. A few minutes into the Arizona senator’s remarks, they resumed their chants -- “People with AIDS are dying; you’re not even trying.”

As they shouted, McCain staff members began escorting them from the room. And some McCain supporters returned rhetorical fire by shouting: “Mac is Back.”

McCain also delivered a parting shot: “You know, I’ve always been curious why people like you who live in a free and open society would disrespect one of the most fundamental parts of America, and that is the ability to take part in the conversation with people who aspire to [political] office. I’ll never understand it.”

The crowd applauded.

-- Don Frederick